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Anacostia Museum Looks to the Future as it Celebrates 44 Years

Barrington M. Salmon | 10/26/2011, 1:16 p.m.

The Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum recently celebrated its 44th anniversary year at the National Press Club in Northwest. It was clear that those associated with the museum are using this time to not merely reflect on a much heralded past, but to plot an exciting future.

Maria Rosario Jackson, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and director of its Culture, Creativity and Communities Program, was the keynote speaker at the luncheon and fundraiser, which took place on Thursday, Sept. 15. An author and lecturer, Jackson has expertise in the areas of community development, revitalization and planning, urban race, ethnicity and gender politics, and the role of arts and culture in communities. She has been published in academic and professional journals, edited volumes in the fields of urban planning, sociology, community development and the arts and served on the boards of various prominent national and regional arts organizations. Museum Director Camille Akeju said the anniversary allows time to reflect on the museum's past and present and to build on the museum's considerable legacy.

"In looking forward, we purposely looked back," she said during a recent interview. "We engage East of the River communities in our work and are broadening our approach to what defines community. We are always looking at issues that affect Anacostia and resonate elsewhere."

"Like most museums," Akeju said, "the primary task is to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. In order to stay relevant in an evolving community we have focused on issues that have an impact on its residents, whatever their ethnicity. This really isn't a new approach for the museum. Years ago, we looked at environmental issues through our exhibition highlighting a rat infestation in the community. Our midwifery exhibition was born out of the role midwives play in providing healthcare in the African American community."

"We will not ignore the community we are housed in and committed to. We will always remain relevant to our core constituents -- who at this time are over 90% African American."

Akeju said the museum is devoted to producing provocative exhibits and programs and moving members of the community to action.

"Hopefully these activities cause the community to look at where it is and where it could be," she said. "We want to be the catalyst for discussion, a catalyst for change, a catalyst for social interaction and action. We hope to keep that up."

Former museum director Steven Newsome, 59, is in agreement about the seminal role the museum plays.

"For 44 years, we have allowed the public to be and see a part of who we are," he said. "Museums have a history of being distant and aloof but the one thing that's the hallmark is that [Anacostia] allows visitors to have an intimate encounter with culture. That is what distinguishes it from other museums. It was close and personal with the subject matter. There were times when there were a few people in the museum, but it still offered great experiential learning about culture."